‘A Dramatic Monologue,’ by John Stammers (Interior Night, 2010)

Posted: October 1, 2011 in John Stammers Page
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The poem uses the long line to great effect. It has a narrative structure, but with the added incentive of playfully exploring the experience behind the writing of Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The poem tells of Keats’ meeting with Coleridge when out walking on Hampstead Heath (how times change!). It is a relatively well-known story: compare with Keats’ dining-with-Wordsworth story (‘We must not speak when Mr Wordsworth is talking’ said Dorothy). So why this particular story? It allows Stammers to apply his scabrous wit: ‘So of course, think about it, it’s Coleridge who does all the talking’; and what does he talk about, this skilled raconteur? ‘Nightingales, Poetry – Metaphysics – A dream related – /Nightmare – the difference explained between will and Volition/ – a dream accompanied by a sense of touch – single and double/touch – Mermaids… a Ghost story.’ I resist the temptation to refer this to a comparative subject-contents list for Stammers’ books. The poem ends by Coleridge saying of Keats’ handshake: ‘There was death in that hand.’ Once again in this book Thanatos raises its banner; ‘Interior Night’ is a book where predominantly Freudian themes are played out.

The language of ‘Dramatic Monologue’ draws attention to itself; we find chat, notes, pastiche, but mostly the tone is that of the raconteur of fables, stories decked out with sufficient factual detail to hook the listener’s/reader’s own suspension of disbelief. It is, the title states, a monologue, but it allows itself to attempt period dialogue: ‘May I present Mr John Keats? -/ John Keats? The poet? Well found. How do you do, sir?’ What we see at work here, what we are supposed to see at work here, is the ability of language used in certain ways to inveigle and occlude the reason and judgement: ‘What d’ya know, a few nights later, for that suffersome throat/ Keats takes a small opium and has a little dream. Sound familiar?/ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ comes tripping out.’ This pairing of ‘small opium’ with ‘little dream’, this colloquial tone and circumscribed range of lexical usage, suggests an ‘after-drinks’ extemporisation. We see here the raconteur before his audience foregrounding the actual content; the poem superimposes persona upon persona upon persona.

I would argue that one of Stammers’ major contributions here and throughout his writing, is his taking on of our almost sacrosanct respect for language use, and displaying its unreliability, its imprecision, its less than worthy credentials for acting as our instrument for understanding, and survival. As is usual with anyone trying to look forward, it is usually accomplished, as here, by looking back.

It is tempting to ask whether, in Stolen Love Behaviour in particular, Stammers was exploring the contemporary possibilities of Keats’ dichotomy, Truth=Beauty. Many images in this book can be read as quite in the influence of a sense of beauty; the central poem ‘Closure’, explores the Truth aspect of this: truth to oneself, truth to one’s writing beyond all else. Can we extend this to ‘Pulp Fiction’, the film; is there a sense in which the separate episodes of that film explore personal integrity-issues? That the form of the poem and of the film reflect each other is, of course, obvious. This tie-ing in tight between the two may be an indication of the author’s conception of the forces at work in modern life, the place of the individual within a very complex play of social factors. If we look at ‘Impression’ from Panoramic Lounge Bar, we can see Stammers approach by antithetical means the classic Greek Nike image (itself a wholly classical form of argument), in this case perhaps in the form of the famous part-sculpture of Artemis tying her sandal. It is now very much a synecdoche for classical beauty per se. And the Greek classical image was for Keats the measure of beauty.

Interior Night, if we accept the ultimately Freudian intent of the book, can be said to be a further pursuit of Truth. Beauty, though, has been left behind. Vague and baggy as these abstract concepts may be, they still pull some weight in the zone of the psyche. The Truths Stammers deals with can be summarized; Stolen Love Behaviour investigates emotional truth: the consequences, and self discoveries, of emotional engagements. Interior Night seems to be predominantly concerned with psychoanalytical truth. Which leaves Panoramic Lounge Bar; ‘Certain Sundry Matters’, although suggesting an engagement with emotional truth, also engages with a panorama of possibly authentic details; these are both cultural, and linguistic. Panoramic Lounge Bar is true to a commitment to language: the easy, conversational, and yet heightened tone, the wide range of its referencing, the rhythms that persuade of an attitude to life, that is both brisk and enhancing.

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